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Lights out for mercury bulbs in Washington?

Bill aims to stop sale of the general-use lights as recycling numbers drop

A road sign points toward the Whatcom County Disposal of Toxics Facility in Bellingham on Dec. 29
A road sign points toward the Whatcom County Disposal of Toxics Facility in Bellingham on Dec. 29
By Isaac Stone Simonelli Enterprise/Investigations Reporter

Efforts are underway to pass legislation that would phase out the sale of general-use mercury light bulbs in the state by 2026 and continue a safe recycling program for such bulbs.

Fluorescent, compact fluorescent and black lights are all typical types of bulbs containing mercury. However, traditional incandescent bulbs and LEDs don’t contain the element. The existing LightRecycle Washington program, expected to sunset in 2026, provides safe recycling for those bulbs, as the mercury contained in them can pose both immediate health concerns and serious environmental issues when not properly disposed of.

Established in 2015, LightRecycle covers the costs of collecting and recycling mercury light bulbs by charging customers 95 cents per new bulb.

“We have this big program across the state where people are safely recycling them [mercury light bulbs] and if we ban them, how do we pay for the recycling?” asked Heather Trimm, the executive director of Zero Waste Washington, which is advocating for the legislation.

District 11 Rep. David Hackney, who is spearheading the legislation, said there needs to be a change in who is shouldering those costs.

“It would shift the funding from the consumer paying a fee when they buy it [mercury light bulbs] to the manufacturers paying for the program, which is typical for many, many of the extended responsibility programs we have in place,” Hackney said.

House Bill 1185, introduced last year, is primarily designed to phase out the sale of most mercury-containing lights starting in 2026; extend and expand the product stewardship program; and shift the costs of the program from consumers to manufacturers.

Hackney said he was confident the bill would make it out of committee this year, but expects there to be challenges to it being passed into law.

“We’ll just have to do our best to persuade our colleagues,” he said.

LightRecycle Washington did not achieve its annual collection goal of more than 1.2 million bulbs in 2022 primarily due to a decrease in mercury light bulb sales, according to a report released in 2023. 

It was estimated that the program collected closer to 478,031 pounds of bulbs, which was estimated to be about 977,000 units.

Whatcom County businesses and residents recycled more than 13,500 pounds of mercury light bulbs through the program in 2022, according to the program’s most recent report. Skagit County accounted for nearly 13,000 pounds.

The vast majority of bulbs recycled in Whatcom County were collected at the Whatcom County Disposal of Toxics Facility in Bellingham. Through the program, private households and businesses can drop off up to 10 light bulbs per day, said Katie King, an environmental technician at the facility.

“We take those mercury-containing bulbs. We pack them and send them to Eco Lights and then they go through and remove the mercury and recycle all of the bulbs,” King said.

The facility has between 10 to 15 people dropping off bulbs daily, King said. She noted that the facility also runs a program that allows businesses to bring in larger numbers of bulbs, but there is a small fee and they have to be pre-packed.

Most bulbs that aren’t LED or plastic contain mercury and need to be handled carefully, King said, encouraging anyone with questions to contact the facility or come in.

“We’re happy to discuss it, give more information and help them be able to recycle them,” King said.

Other places listed in the report as accepting bulbs within the county are WFC Blaine Ace Hardware, WFC Fairhaven True Value, WFC Fairway True Value, Ferndale Ace Hardware, Pacific Building Center–True Value Hardware and Ace Hardware in Lynden. Of those, only Pacific Building Center–True Value Hardware in Blaine and Ferndale Ace Hardware reported any recycled bulbs in 2022.

While King said their facility handled about 7,000 pounds of bulbs between August and October 2023, the report from LightRecycle Washington — based on 2022 numbers — made it clear that there was a statewide decrease in bulbs being recycled.

“It is evident that, despite our best efforts, collection numbers will continue to decline at a faster rate than initially forecasted when these targets were set,” the report stated.  

For Rep. Hackney, the evolution of the lighting industry in Washington looks like the passing of HB 1185, joining seven other states with similar programs that have allowed reliance on general-use, mercury-containing bulbs to fade.

However, the bill makes exceptions for a variety of specialty-use bulbs, including those used in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, germicidal use, medical diagnosis and treatment, and lights used for image capture and projection. 

Because of this — and the long lifecycle of mercury bulbs — there will still be a need to fund a recycling program, Trimm explained.

“We don’t want people to put them in their garbage bin or their regular recycle bin,” Trimm said, noting that any broken bulbs present a safety risk to workers and residents.

If the bill passes, Hackney said that it would help incentivize manufacturers to “make capital investments in the future” and innovate, moving away from a reliance on mercury.

There is the possibility that the cost would be passed down to consumers through increased prices, but Hackney said that’s only possible if the product is competitive enough that the market can shoulder an increase in price.

“We’re putting the cost on them,” Hackney said of the manufacturers. “You can eat the cost. You can pass on the cost. You can share the cost, but it’s your responsibility.” 

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